NASA wants to probe deeper into Uranus than ever before
Scientists from the Paris Observatory used the Hubble Space Telescope to take a look at the auroras on Uranus (Picture: ESA/Hubble & NASA, L. Lamy / Observatoire de Paris)

Up until now, NASA has never paid too much attention to Uranus – but now the space agency wants to take a good, long look.

And one of the things it might be investigating is all that gas.

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A NASA group outlined four possible missions to the ice giants Uranus and Neptune – including three orbiters and a possible fly-by of Uranus.

The planned probes would take off in the 2030s, New Scientist reports.

‘The preferred mission is an orbiter with an atmospheric probe to either Uranus or Neptune – this provides the highest science value, and allows in depth study of all aspects of either planet’s system: rings, satellites, atmosphere, magnetosphere,’ says Amy Simon, co-chair of the Ice Giants Pre-Decadal Study group.

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One of the proposed missions includes a fly-by of Uranus, which would include a narrow-angle camera – and a probe which would drop into Uranus’s atmosphere to measure gas and heavy elements.

There are four proposed missions – three orbiters and a fly-by of Uranus, which would include a narrow angle camera to draw out details, especially of the ice giant’s moons. It would also drop an atmospheric probe to take a dive into Uranus’s atmosphere to measure the levels of gas and heavy elements there.

Has Uranus been probed?

NASA wants to probe deeper into Uranus than ever before

NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew closely past distant Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun, in January 1986.

At its closest, the spacecraft came within 81,500 kilometres (50,600 miles) of Uranus’s cloudtops on January 24, 1986.

Voyager 2 radioed thousands of images and voluminous amounts of other scientific data on the planet, its moons, rings, atmosphere, interior and the magnetic environment surrounding Uranus.

Comet
A map of the outer solar system (Picture: AFP/Getty)

Since launch on August 20, 1977, Voyager 2’s itinerary has taken the spacecraft to Jupiter in July 1979, Saturn in August 1981, and then Uranus. Voyager 2’s next encounter was with Neptune in August 1989. Both Voyager 2 and its twin, Voyager 1, will eventually leave our solar system and enter interstellar space.

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Voyager 2’s images of the five largest moons around Uranus revealed complex surfaces indicative of varying geologic pasts. The cameras also detected 10 previously unseen moons.

NASA wants to probe deeper into Uranus than ever before
The 11 rings of Uranus, opaque and a few kilometres wide each, are relatively young in space terms – not more than 600 million years old. They were probably formed by collisional fragmentation of several moons that once orbited the planet (Picture: BSIP/UIG Via Getty)

Several instruments studied the ring system, uncovering the fine detail of the previously known rings and two newly detected rings.

Voyager data showed that the planet’s rate of rotation is 17 hours, 14 minutes.

The spacecraft also found a Uranian magnetic field that is both large and unusual. In addition, the temperature of the equatorial region, which receives less sunlight over a Uranian year, is nevertheless about the same as that at the poles.